Zohar for the Rest of Us

After you’ve spent a couple hours puzzling over Daniel Matt’s Zohar or trying to sort truth from hype in the teachings of the Kabbalah Centre, it’s a welcome relief to turn to a lucid academic rendering of kabbalah. Arthur Green, a professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis University, wrote the introduction to Matt’s translation and is also the author of a useful new book titled "A Guide to the Zohar." Published by Stanford University Press as a companion to Matt’s work, this diminutive, accessible volume tells you everything you need to know about the Zohar — its history and influence plus honest but easy-to-read crystallizations of some of the main Zoharic themes — albeit from an entirely secular perspective.

Green is informative not only on the Zohar itself but on what modern hypesters have done with it: "Some versions of what is proffered as ‘kabbalah’ today can be described only as highly debased renditions of the original teachings and include large elements of folk religion that have little to do with actual kabbalistic teaching."

Yet it’s also possible to find justifications here for some of the flakier-sounding practices coming out popularized kabbalah sources like the Kabbalah Centre. Consider the notion that it can be highly beneficial merely to scan the text of the Zohar with your eyes — a "debased rendition" of a genuine practice embraced in earlier centuries by Jews who produced "collections of Zohar passages to be recited during the night vigils of Shavuot and Hoshannah Rabbah, at the Sabbath table, and on various other occasions. It came to be understood "that recitation of the oral Zohar was efficacious even for those who did not understand its meaning."

The drawback to Green’s book is that he’s a modern university scholar who, by virtue of his calling and training, can’t help but historicize everything. Thus he’d have us believe that the Zohar’s emphasis on the Shekhinah, the divine feminine, arose from the influence of the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary.

Anyone looking for books on kaballah that take it at face value as a way to come closer to God might want to open the works of Aryeh Kaplan, who also wrote beautifully on this subject — but from a more traditional perspective. — DK